Of Weight and Loss: Four Memoirs

Being in love makes me fat.

I always know I?m falling for a man when we go out to dinner and I don?t hesitate to spread butter on bread, eating without pausing after every bite to wipe my mouth self-consciously, take a sip of water, and remind myself that there?s nonfat yogurt waiting at home in the refrigerator. In a relationship, there?s something so comfortable about sharing ice cream on the couch, spoonfuls of chocolate in between kisses and easy conversation. Commitment makes it safe to satisfy your appetite; like the life of a retired athlete, there?s no longer any need to worry about competition. Finally, love says, you can be yourself and let?s get the nachos.

In Moose: A Memoir of Fat Camp, Stephanie Klein writes, “I spent my whole single life trying to be thin just to find someone who?d love me once I got fat.” Her admission highlights the often unspoken promise that fuels the multibillion-dollar diet industry: when slim, a woman possesses more possibilities for a happy life. But the other side of the fantasy is a grim statistic: of people who lose weight on diets, only 5 percent successfully keep it off, because the problem with diets is that they never end. They never end. “I have been on every diet they?ve ever marketed and I?ve lost approximately 1,337 pounds in my lifetime — so far,” confesses Janette Barber, coauthor with Laura Banks of Embracing Your Big Fat Ass: An Owner?s Manual.

The only way to maintain one’s revised profile, apparently, is more exercise and less food forever, until death. A less sternly committed course, as represented by these four new memoirs about weight, involves living fully, as opposed to waiting for one?s “real” (read: thin) life to open doors. A blurb for Embracing, from fellow ex-dieter Wendy Shanker, author of The Fat Girl?s Guide to Life, references a much-talked-about diet guide and suggests, “Who would want to be a Skinny Bitch when she could be Embracing her Big Fat Ass instead?” Who, indeed? Everyone knows it?s more fun to eat macaroni and cheese than take another lap around the track, and these authors look for and offer motivation to be healthier as well as empathy with the struggle. As a girlfriends? guide to self-acceptance, Embracing succeeds, though it fails to hit more than that note, while the other volumes offer emotional and layered stories.

What all these writers share, in greater and lesser degree, is anger, both at themselves and the diet industry. In Stephanie Klein’s memoir, the indoctrinations of “fat camp” provide a material touchstone for her meditation on weight and identity. Having grown up chubby enough to earn the nickname “Moose” in junior high, Klein recounted the ridicule to her father, who laughed and said, “If you want to be happy and stop being teased, you?ll lose weight.” At fat camp, where instead of total acceptance, the obese kids made fun of the fat kids and the morbidly obese picked on the obese, Klein lost weight and picked up the building blocks of an eating disorder. She learned how to make herself throw up and honed a lasting hyperawareness of nutritional information. The resulting state is hard to construe as healthy, but it’s nevertheless achingly familiar: “You starve yourself at the expense of your health, willing to make a Faustian pact with a Devil Dog if promised a thin life.” This commitment to self-torture, of course, springs from expectation that losing weight makes everything better. That?s the fallacy of diets: the idea there will be an endpoint, a triumph that comes with the opportunity to relax and be who you were born to be.

Indeed, Klein finds no such endpoint. On her first day of college, thin and toned, a wisp of her former self, she was catcalled by familiar voices from her high school addressing her as “Moose.” “When we die, no one remembers us for what we weighed,” she reminds herself. But still, after a lifetime of drinking skim milk and keeping food diaries, what realistic conclusion can there be other than this? “It?s a good day when I feel confident.” Fat or thin, perhaps this is the most any woman struggling with weight issues can hope, not for a different life but one that is strong and authentic, unafraid of being seen.

The backlash against diet-fostered illusions of restraint and subsequent tranformation are represented in full force by blogger and bestselling memoirist Jen Lancaster, whose hilarious Such a Pretty Fat is the reality television show of books. Though her weight was 50 pounds heavier than she assumed — and she acknowledged that even if she lost 50 pounds, she would still qualify as fat — her confidence makes her enormously appealing. Navigating the Atkins diet, Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, and personal training, she reports her travails with the conversational familiarity and unapologetic tone typically reserved for a best friend. For instance, the ad posted when she and her husband decided to sell their stationary exercise bike reads: “Two fat people admit defeat?Naturally, we?ll need cash because we?ll probably use the money for pie.”

Lancaster’s bracing irreverence aside, the real standout of these memoirs is Alexandra Soiseth?s Choosing You, an astonishing account of her 109-pound weight loss and single motherhood. At age 35, she stepped on a scale for the first time in years and discovered she had ballooned to 274 pounds. She headed directly to the kitchen, where she baked a batch of shortbread cookies and ate until she couldn?t eat anymore, burning her mouth. Stretched on the couch, completely naked and waiting for her nausea to pass, she thought, “At least there is no one to see me this way.” Soiseth writes of never having been in love, of her open hunger for partnership, and her choice, at 39, to find a sperm donor and become a mother before it was too late.

“I hate my body and can?t seem to stop eating,” she confessed after giving birth, adding that she was struck by the idea “that the price I have paid to have her ?is being paid by my body.” The irony is that in order to have a child, Soiseth had to choose herself. Subsequent to having the baby, she no longer had the time, money or energy to make herself a priority, and her weight returned, a gain viewed as part of the inevitable sacrifice made for her child. “These struggles with eating and my weight,” writes Soiseth, “have colored, and probably always will color, every corner of my life.” At the end of her book, she is still single, though her daughter calls to her from the other room. Because of her, Soiseth understands “what it means to live and to love and to be afraid but love anyway.”

“No matter how thin you get, fat feels like it?s always lurking just around the corner,” write Barber and Banks. Dieting is about the physical weight, but more than that it?s about trying to fulfill an emotional hunger, an idea of perfection. These memoirs, despite the forced enthusiasm of Embracing and the cringe-inducing descriptions of adolescence in Moose, are refreshing for their un-airbrushed company, the chorus of voices confirming that diets may fail, or never end, but you?re not alone. At the beginning of her quest to slim down, Lancaster resolved, “It?s time to stop treating my body like a fraternity house,” which, all things considered, seems like a pretty good place to start.